LUNAR IMPACT: A History of Project Ranger

Part II. The New Ranger

Chapter Nineteen - THE RANGER LEGACY

As the new year began, in an open letter to The Christian Science Monitor, Gerard Kuiper declared: "I definitely know of no better or cheaper way to get high-resolution lunar photographs - if I did, I would propose it." Project Ranger, he insisted, was unquestionably worth a final price tag of $270 million. 1 To be sure, the solitary experiment remaining aboard the Ranger spacecraft, the visual imaging television system, had fulfilled the lunar mission objective specified by NASA. But the first closeup pictures had seemed to generate as much heat as they did light. 2


On January 4, 1965, NASAís Ranger 8 "buy-off" committee met in Pasadena. The committee members found Ranger 8ís test record to be "quite clean," and they approved shipment of the spacecraft to Cape Kennedy. 3 At the Cape during January, Ranger 8 and its Atlas-Agena launch vehicle methodically moved through the prescribed series of prelaunch tests. The often frustrating organizational and technical problems that had beset this process in earlier years were gone; ground testing space flight hardware at the Cape, as at JPL, had become routine. On February 2, NASA officials found the launch vehicle and the spacecraft flight-ready. 4 Final tests began immediately to meet the first day of the February lunar launch period.

As the hour of launch neared on February 17, the familiar drama was repeated: project officials at the JPL Space Flight Operations Facility supervising last-minute details; newsmen gathered for the occasion at the JPL auditorium; early rising agency officials and dignitaries watching and listening from the NASA auditorium in Washington. At 6:05 am EST, just a few minutes into the launch window, the engines of Atlas 196D came to life. Before the cameras in a nationally televised launch, the rocket majestically bore the 364-kilogram (808-pound) spacecraft moonward. Ranger 8ís target was on the lunar equator in Mare Tranquillitatis, the flatland region of prime interest to Project Apollo, and the machine was expected to reach that destination in 65 hours.

Except for a curious drop in telemetry power during the midcourse maneuver, Ranger 8 performed flawlessly, and its managers decided to exercise the spacecraft completely. By a terminal maneuver at lunar encounter, the television cameras could be pointed directly along the flight path. That would reduce the smearing of the visual images while improving the resolution of the final closeup pictures (Figure 94).


Fig. 94 Ranger Block III Terminal Maneuver

Schurmeier and Cunningham advised the experimenters accordingly. But the midcourse telemetry anomaly, JPL project scientist Vrebalovich later recalled, caused "the experimenters to become engineers again, and they decided against the terminal maneuver because it was too risky." The project officials reluctantly agreed to the experimentersí decision. 5 Early Saturday morning, on February 20, without any change in the attitude of Ranger 8, project officials commanded Rangerís television cameras to warm up. Once again, as the cameras came on and video signals began arriving at the Goldstone tracking station, George Nichols described the rush of impending success. And again, at 1:57 am PST, lunar impact brought the Ranger audience in the JPL auditorium, the flight control center, and in Washington to its feet with enthusiastic cheers and applause. 6

Pickering, Schurmeier, Cunningham, and Cortright met with newsmen at a 2:30 am press conference in the JPL auditorium. It had been "a great satisfaction to see the project go so smoothly," Pickering declared. Schurmeier noted that Ranger 8 had landed within 24 kilometers (15 miles) of the preselected aim point in the moonís Sea of Tranquility. "It was another textbook flight," he said. Then, alluding to the loss of telemetry during the midcourse maneuver, he added, "Every textbook Iíve read has had a few small errors." Reporters learned that Rangerís pictures would be processed quickly, and some of them released at the experimentersí news conference that same afternoon (Figure 95). 7


Fig. 95. Kuiper, Heacock, and Whitaker Examine Ranger 8 Pictures at the Flight Control Center

At the experimentersí news conference Kuiper showed and discussed for reporters a few representative pictures from among the 7137 provided by Ranger 8. The closeup pictures of Mare Tranquillitatis revealed surface features virtually identical to those in Mare Cognitum. In fact, Kuiper observed with the last slide, "If you did not know that this was taken with Ranger 8, you would think it was one of the Ranger 7 pictures." The remarkable similarity between two different lunar maria most impressed Rangerís scientists, who now supposed that Ďprobably all lunar maria are pretty much this way." 8 However, there was one new interpretation. Drawing on a supposition made by Harold Urey, the experimenters had termed a feature appearing in many pictures from Rangers 7 and 8 "dimple craters." This kind of crater resembled the sort of subsidence one found in the sand of an hour-glass draining into a cavity below. Consequently, Kuiper asserted, it could be speculated that a similar phenomenon applied in certain regions of the lunar maria, much like collapse depressions on earth, with material dropping beneath the surface (Figure 96). 9


Fig. 96.(a) Ranger 8 Pictures of the Sea of Tranquility: An Area 107.8 km (N-S) by 123.9 km (E-W);

The Lens Markings Are Used for Scale Measurements.


Fig. 96.(b) Ranger 8 Pictures of the Sea of Tranquility


Fig. 96.(c) Ranger 8 Pictures of the Sea of Tranquility


Fig. 96.(d) Ranger 8 Pictures of the Sea of Tranquility


Fig. 96.(e) Ranger 8 Pictures of the Sea of Tranquility


Fig. 96.(f) Ranger 8 Pictures of the Sea of Tranquility: 

An Area 1360.3m (N-S) by 1296.3m (E-W). 

The Band of Radio Noise at the Right of (f) Occurred Upon Cessation of Transmission After Impact.

In the brief question and answer period, newsmen asked Kuiper to explain further the ramifications that dimple craters might be expected to have for the safety of manned landings. These depressed areas, he responded, might be regions of localized collapse, as often happened in lava fields. The surface itself, he continued to maintain, probably had a bearing strength similar to rock froth, melted and solidified in a vacuum. It should prove adequate to support manned landings, although, he now added, it also could be "treacherous" in spots. Eugene Shoemaker believed that dimple craters were nothing more than degraded secondary impact craters, and that the model of a lunar surface composed of fragmented debris had proved consistent; the similarity in fine detail especially was "one of the most striking results" to come from Ranger 8. That could be considered "very encouraging from the point of view of Project Apollo." But Rangerís pictures alone, Harold Urey reiterated, could not answer these questions. Until a Surveyor machine had made a soft landing, the actual bearing strength of the moonís surface simply could not be determined with certainty. 10

Had Ranger, therefore, "speeded the day when we know man can land on the moon?" a reported inquired pointedly. Of course, Pickering responded; Ranger had added "a great deal of information" about the moon. "What specific areas of information had been added?" another quickly asked. Cortright answered for Headquarters: "We actually didn't know whether there was any spot on the moon that was level enough and smooth enough for the Apollo spacecraft to land," he stated. "On July 31 [1964] we found there was at least one [site] ... Today we know that there are at least two, and we have reason to believe that this viewľ is probably typical [of lunar maria]. The big question now is: Ďis it hard enough?í" 11

The New York Times headlined this successful Ranger mission as one of support for Apollo. 12 But what the Ranger pictures meant for man on the moon, the Times concluded in an editorial the next day, was confirmation of uncertainties that "strengthen still more the case for making progress slowly, without any deadline on Project Apollo." 13 As for science, the experimentersí news conference had only added to public skepticism; the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner summed up the situation for its readers: "The Moon: Rock? ... Dust? ... Porous? ... Spongy?" 14 Virtually all the proponents of different lunar theories could and did find support in the pictures. Indeed, the very close similarity of the surface detail in the final pictures from both flights meant that no consensus was possible. Not now at any rate.

Scientific consensus in Project Ranger was far from the mind of President Lyndon Johnson on February 25, as he took his seat in a large conference room at NASA Headquarters. Victorious in the November elections, his inauguration already a warm memory, he was to be briefed on Ranger 8 and the current NASA program (Figure 97).


Fig. 97. At Headquarters, NASA Administrator James Webb Explains Lunar Surface Model for President Johnson and Vice-President Humphrey. Constructed From a Ranger 7 Picture. 

Scale Models of an Apollo Lander and a Surveyor Machine Appear on the Surface (Courtesy World Wide Photos).

The former Congressional leader and prime mover of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, Johnson was the first American President ever to visit NASA Headquarters. Instead of summoning NASA officials to the White House, the President explained afterwards, he had come over personally to convey to them his sincere thanks. Their productive efforts, he said, were "an example for all the rest of our Government and for public servants everywhere." 15

Confronted with increasingly difficult demands at home and in Vietnam, the Administration contemplated the moon and took obvious pride in the national achievements represented by such space projects as Gemini, Mariner, and Ranger (Figure 98). Next up was Ranger 9.


Fig. 98. "Successful Launch" (Courtesy Gene Basset, Scripps-Howard Newspapers)


On February 27, 1965, one week after Ranger 8 landed on the moon, project experimenters and officials met at JPL to select the lunar targets for Ranger 9. Rangerís capabilities and restraints for the lunar launch period of March 19 to March 25 were first reviewed with Apollo and Surveyor representatives in attendance, then the experimenters recommended that Ranger 9 be directed to a lunar highlands region or other area of specific scientific interest. The Apollo officials concurred, and suggested a landing at the edge of material ejected from a crater in the lunar highlands. The proposals of Surveyor personnel, who hoped that Ranger 9 might return to another mare for purposes of Surveyor landing site selection, were overruled. 16

Ranger coexperimenters Heacock and Whitaker, designated to handle the preparatory work for their colleagues, met again on March 2 to consider a set of preliminary lunar targets. Their set emphasized large craters in the highlands. Separate meetings with the other experimenters during the next few days produced a firm list: 17

Launch Date

Lunar Target



March 19

No agreement on a target reached among the experimenters


March 20

No agreement on a target reached among the experimenters


March 21

Crater Alphonsus

13.3į S

3.0į W

March 22

Crater Copernicus

10.0į N

19.5į W

March 23

Crater Kepler

8.2į N

37.8į W

March 24-25

Schroterís Valley

24.5į N

49.0į W

When the list was submitted to Headquarters on March 10, Heacock had already strongly urged Cunningham to accept it. The two preceding flights, he said in a letter to the Ranger Program Chief, had made a "very valuable" contribution to Apollo, "but this is not generally recognized or appreciated." Moreover, "two impacts into mare areas have created a bad impression in terms of Rangerís ability to provide useful [scientific] data." Therefore, he concluded, "it seems only reasonable for NASA to allow the Ranger experimenters a free choice on this last mission. From all the inputs I have received, the Crater Alphonsus would be an almost unanimous first choice." 18 On March 10 Nicks wholeheartedly endorsed the targets recommended by Ranger's scientists, and Newell approved the selection a few days later. 19 Ranger 9 would fly to the lunar highlands for science - specifically, into the Crater Alphonsus if launched on the first acceptable day of the March period.

But the March 21 date conflicted directly with the planned launch of the first manned Gemini spacecraft. A precursor of Apollo, designed to test the space rendezvous docking procedures needed for manned flight to the moon, Gemini had priority. Gemini also required that the ground computers needed by Ranger at Cape Kennedy be available for its use one full day before launch. Still, the Gemini flight had already been postponed a number of times, and it might be delayed again. In that event canceling the March launch of Ranger 9 could be a costly mistake. On March 15 Associate Administrator Robert Seamans stayed the Gemini launch for one day, to March 23, permitting Project Ranger a chance at a single launch attempt on Sunday, March 21. 20

At Cape Kennedy on March 18, Ranger 9 and its Atlas-Agena launch vehicle moved smoothly through the final prelaunch tests. Half a world away, at Baikonur in the Kazakhstan, U.S.S.R., two Soviet cosmonauts rocketed into space aboard the Voskhod 2. Before descending from earth orbit the next day, one of them, clad in a spacesuit and tethered to the spacecraft, floated in the void of space and "successfully carried out prescribed studies and observations." In Moscow, The New York Times reported, "a Soviet space official said 'the target now before us is the moon, and we hope to reach it in the not too distant future.í" In Washington, confidence in Americaís growing space capabilities was noticeably shaken. 21

Inclement weather swirled over Southern Florida, complicated launch preparations for Ranger 9, and added further to the gloom. When the countdown began early Sunday morning, angry clouds obscured the sky, and winds gusting to 13 meters per second (30 miles per hour) buffeted Launch Complex 12. Project officials monitoring events from the flight control center at JPL, therefore, were pleased to learn that the winds above the overcast were acceptable for the flight - if only those at the surface would subside a little. The count was delayed. The winds slackened. At 4:37 pm EST, as the launch window neared its close, the countdown for the last Ranger mission concluded. The low-scudding overcast absorbed the clouds of steam and smoke as Atlas 204D, Agena B 6007, and Ranger 9 rose above the Cape and were quickly lost to view.

In the bright sunlight above the clouds, the Atlas-Agena performed perfectly. Injected on its lunar trajectory, Ranger 9 moved irresistibly toward the moon and the Crater Alphonsus. Named after a 13th-century king of Castile and patron of astronomers, the 112-kilometer (70-mile) wide crater was of particular scientific interest because its large central peak appeared to contain evidence of vulcanism. In 1957 Dinsmore Alter, the Director of the Griffith Park Observatory, had reported sighting fluorescent gas inside the crater, and a year later the Soviet astronomer Nikplay Kozyrev had succeeded in obtaining spectrographs of these emissions. Shortly after Project Ranger began, Urey had urged Newell to consider Alphonsus a lunar target of moment for this very reason. 22 Any overt plutonic activity inside the crater was likely to be revealed in closeup pictures.

On Monday, March 22, Ranger 9 successfully completed the midcourse maneuver and was correctly aimed into the crater Alphonsus. Other engineers and scientists at JPL, meantime, finished modifying a Surveyor "electronic scan converter" for use in Project Ranger. A last-minute idea agreed to by the experimenters, this device could accommodate Rangerís pictures for broadcast on commercial television across North America. It consisted essentially of two sets of television vidicon tubes facing each other. One set read the images appearing on its opposite number, effectively converting the lines per frame received from Rangerís cameras into conventional numbers of lines per frame. When Ranger 9 approached the moon early Wednesday morning, March 24, the scan converter was installed and checked out at the JPL Space Flight Operations Facility. 23

For this mission, Rangerís experimenters had also agreed to a terminal maneuver to improve the resolution of the pictures. One half hour before impact, at 5:31 am PST, Ranger 9 executed the coded maneuver commands transmitted earlier from Goldstone. The spacecraft completed the necessary pitch and yaw movements, repositioned its high-gain antenna - once again pointed towards earth - and assumed the terminal orientation desired for picture taking. In von Karman auditorium at JPL, Ranger coexperimenter Heacoock took his place in the broadcast booth to describe the pictorial events to the watching nation. At 5:48 am PST, twenty minutes before impact, Rangerís television cameras were warmed up. Moments later Goldstone announced the receipt of video signals. At the same time pictures selected from among those being taken on Rangerís two full-scan cameras filled television screens in the JPL auditorium and around the country. During the next eighteen minutes Heacock described the prominent lunar features that sprang into view as the spacecraft plummeted into the Crater Alphonsus. The transmissions ceased at 6:08 am, when Ranger 9 crashed beside the 1050-meter (3500-foot) high central peak within the crater (Figure 99). 24


Fig. 99. Urey, Whitaker, and Shoemaker, in Foreground, Watch Ranger 9 Pictures "Live" at the Flight Control Center

Afterwards, Heacock made his way as best he could through excited and inquiring newsmen to join his colleagues in the Space Flight Operations Facility. In the net control area, Ranger flight operations personnel and engineers had already left their consoles and were shaking hands and offering each other congratulations. Although their pleasure in the moment was undeniable, the mood was subdued. For them, Project Ranger had ended. 25

At the following news conference, Nicks read from Silversteinís guideline letter that had established Project Ranger on December 21, 1959. The letter prominently listed closeup photography of the lunar surface among the experiments then planned for this unmanned scientific Right project, and that objective had been met. But, Nicks told the newsmen: "What you couldnít see and what we couldnít see in the beginning were some of the other things that Ranger would do. It was not in the guideline letter, for example, that Ranger should provide the capability for doing Mariner 2 to Venus [1962] in a very short time. It wasnít in the letter that Mariner 4 [1964], which is now on its way to Mars, would be a direct descendant of Ranger and use much of its technology. It also wasn't in the letter that Ranger should develop the attitude control system, the tracking capability, the midcourse maneuver system, and the TV advancements which are so obvious today." Pickering added his own thoughts to those already expressed: "The project we reflect on today has been a long and difficult road since 1959. We had our problems in the early days ... [but] the achievements of the last three flights have shown that Ranger [could] carry out these deep space missions under remote command, that Ranger has indeed demonstrated the soundness of the basic system design, and that the closeup photographs ... have opened a new field of the exploration of the moon." 26 Most could agree with these observations - including Earl Hilburn, whose congratulatory telegram was to be found among others fast arriving at the Laboratory, hailing the successful completion of the project. 27

The Ranger 9 pictures, Kuiper informed newsmen at the experimentersí press conference later that same day, held no surprises for science (Figure 100).


Fig. 100. Urey, Kuiper, and Shoemaker Confer Before Ranger 9 Experimenters' Press Conference

To be sure, dark "halo craters" on the floor of Alphonsus appeared of volcanic origin, but besides that, and the similarity of other surface features to those in the lunar maria, little else novel or unusual had appeared. Urey now agreed with his colleagues on one point. The dark halo craters probably were "due to some sort of plutonic activity beneath the surface," although he doubted their precise counterparts existed on earth. But, he added, evoking laughter, until more chemists were brought into the program, newsmen should not expect Rangerís experimenters to achieve "any reasonable interpretation [of the surface] that we can agree on (Figure 101)." 28

FIGURE MISSING: Fig. 101. Ranger 9 Pictures of the Crater Alphonsus: (a) an Area 214 km (N-S) by 202.7 km (E-W); (d) an Area 3.2 km on a side. North Is at Top. The Clock and Number Identify the Frame. The Lens Markings Are Used for Scale Measurements. The White Circle Denotes the Point of Impact.


Fig. 101.(a) Ranger 9 Pictures of the Crater Alphonsus: An Area 214 km (N-S) by 202.7 km (E-W); North Is at Top. 

The Clock and Number Identify the Frame. The Lens Markings Are Used for Scale Measurements. 


Fig. 101.(b) Ranger 9 Pictures of the Crater Alphonsus


Fig. 101.(c) Ranger 9 Pictures of the Crater Alphonsus


Fig. 101.(d) Ranger 9 Pictures of the Crater Alphonsus: an Area 3.2 km on a side.

The White Circle Denotes the Point of Impact.

Withal, the "live" television coverage of Alphonsus was popularly judged Ranger 9ís most impressive accomplishment. 29 Everyone in North America with access to a television set had been able to watch the event and, as if holding a visual subscription to the National Geographic, experience firsthand the thrill of exploring the unknown. Relenting somewhat of its earlier opinion, The Christian Science Monitor offered "awed congratulations to all those involved in giving the public - Ďlive,í in Ďreal timeí - the sequence of pictures sent back by Ranger." "High and historic drama," The New York Times added, terming the mission "astronomy for the masses," and "the finest type of space research at this stage of history." 30 The people had participated, though the meaning and the medium of the experience remained scrambled. One local correspondent said it succinctly: "For most of us the pictures didnít look like much, but the mere fact of seeing them gave us a front row seat on science." 31

President Johnson watched on a television set at the White House. Ranger 9, and the manned Gemini spacecraft launched successfully for a three-orbit mission around the world during Rangerís flight to the moon, assuaged much of the concern generated by the "spacewalking" Russian a week before. After the impact inside Alphonsus, the President issued a public statement exuding fresh confidence: "Ranger 9 showed the world further evidence of the dramatic accomplishments of the United States space team ... Steps toward manned flight to the moon have become rapid and coordinated strides, as manned space maneuvers of one day are followed by detailed pictures of the moon on the next (Figure 102)." 32

Called to the White House forthwith, James Webb briefed President Johnson and the members of his Cabinet on Ranger's photographs and their implications for Project Apollo. 33


Fig. 102. "Ranger 9 Touch" (Courtesy Tom Little in The [Nashville] Tennessean)

On Friday, March 26, Schurmeier joined Seamans and Gemini astronauts Grissom and Young at the White House. There, in special ceremonies presided over by the President, the four men were honored for their contributions to the exploration of space. Webb unreservedly lauded Schurmeierís courage and competence (Figure 103).


Fig. 103. White House Awards Ceremony.

Left to Right: Vice-President Humphrey, Ranger Project Manager Schurmeier, President Johnson, NASA Administrator Webb

Memories of past trauma, of Ranger 6 and its aftermath, rose to mind. Hardly twelve months before Schurmeier had wondered if the project would survive. Now, surrounded by throngs of cameramen and reporters, decorated with NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, he was acclaimed a hero.


However much credit he deserved, Schurmeier would have been the first to admit that he had benefited considerably from what the Ranger Project had forced NASA, JPL, and leading space scientists to learn since Pickering had first urged U.S. lunar flights in response to Sputnik. Prompted perhaps by the need for caution in dealing with the U.S. Air Force, the service that possessed large launch vehicles when Ranger began, and by a desire to maintain more control at Headquarters, NASA leaders had at first attempted to manage Ranger through committees, coordination boards, and other anemic administrative devices. Experience soon drove home the point that project management had to be delegated to a project manager at the pertinent field center, JPL. Experience also made clear the advantages of bringing together agency scientists and engineers both at Headquarters and in the field laboratory. And experience pushed NASA to extract from the Air Force the authority for the Ranger Project manager to direct all of the work. 34

The first project manager, James Burke, did a good deal to point up the meaning of the early experience for the NASA leadership. At first recognized only as the spacecraft manager, he fought the battles for a hierarchically structured project organization, sensible procedures for launch vehicle procurement and launch operations, the chance to serve a single master at NASA - manned or unmanned - and for the rights of the project manager and the experimenters. For a considerable time, Burke also had his battles within JPL itself following traditional JPL practice, the leaders of the Laboratory attempted to direct Ranger through a small project office supported by an array of longstanding technical divisions. The post-Ranger 5 investigations proved that this organizational form - where technicians report to two bosses - tended to produce hard administrative and technical problems for the project. Well-established JPL division chiefs, busy tidying up details on the Sergeant missile program, tended to respond cautiously rather than promptly to the first project manager.

Had Burke been more forceful and demanding, perhaps he could have made the early Rangers work. He did occupy himself considerably with trying to carve out an appropriate area of authority. The cost included having to delegate spacecraft details to the Systems Division, where many of them were attended to improperly. But Burke, youthful and informal, having never even headed a JPL technical division, could not easily make headway against the established chiefs at the Laboratory, not at least without decidedly more support from Pickering. It took the post-Ranger 5 pressures from NASA Headquarters to curtail the autonomy of the technical divisions and to centralize functions to assure quality and reliability in the project. 35

Whatever Burkeís lack of authority, he shared the tendency of JPL officials to apply their experience in the Army missile program to the challenges of space research. They did not embrace the cavalier "shoot-and-hope" approach of which they were accused, but they did count on a sound design rather than on extensive ground tests to guarantee spacecraft reliability. Actual "shakedown" flights were expected to provide data on aspects of the spacecraft performance that could otherwise be obtained only in elaborate ground test facilities. On the early Rangers this tendency was reinforced because special test facilities for such spacecraft had yet to be built when the space program began. But the erroneous weight limitation crippled the original lunar spacecraft design, and heat sterilization of major components compromised its performance. Flight failures resulted from coupling all these difficulties with a hell-bent-for-leather approach to beat the Russians.

The desire to beat the Russians while minimizing costs clearly influenced Burke and other JPL leaders to hold schedules inviolate, freeze the design of the Block II lunar machines at the erroneous weight limit, and drop redundant engineering features. Most NASA officials, for their part, countenanced, even encouraged the headlong rush to demonstrate American technical supremacy. Though the performance of the Block II seismometer capsule subsystem might be questionable and evidence of the undesirable effects of heat sterilization of components mounting, they too approved launching on schedule. Homer Newell summed up the urgency that moved scientists and engineers alike:

During the early years of NASA there was great pressure to catch up with and excel over the Soviets. This was perhaps best typified by Keith Glennanís instruction ... that we should conduct ourselves and our programs as if we were at war and intended to win it. While this was never written down, we heard it, believed it, and endeavored to carry it out. 36

The haste engendered by the "space race" syndrome was accentuated by the ambitions of Burke and his engineering colleagues at JPL to build a planetary, not merely a lunar spacecraft. Launches to the moon could be made monthly; to the planets at much less frequent intervals. "We consciously set out to accustom our people to meet fixed launch schedules in NASAís deep space program," Burke recalled. "Celestial mechanics fixed the schedules. We knew we couldn't afford the delays that the earth satellite projects often claimed." Of course, attempting to make Ranger a planetary rather than a simpler lunar machine entailed high risks, but the early Ranger was conceived and authorized as a fast-paced, high-risk undertaking. The risks might not have been so great, it must be said, had Burke not had to accommodate a number of space science experiments at the same time that his engineers were attempting a radical advance in spacecraft technology. Space scientists tended at first not to appreciate the requirements of the engineering task, and their lack of appreciation seemed to have been mirrored consistently in the NASA office of Newell and Nicks, who failed to perceive the soundness of Burkeís protests until Ranger was on the verge of disaster. The unrestrained competition for the scarce commodities of spacecraft weight, space, and power nearly brought down the project.

Burke knew the risks, accepted them - and paid the price. But he had the satisfaction of staying on to see Ranger become the success he had always believed it could be. The things for which he struggled - straightforward, unchanging project objectives, experiments that could not be altered at a scientistís whim, recognized authority and responsibility in and from all the agencies participating Burke won all these in defeat. NASA and JPL leaders granted all of them to his successor, Schurmeier, who, with new test facilities and procedures, used them skillfully to the advantage of Ranger.


Ranger was accounted to have cost $267 million, 37 and observers wonder whether the project was worth the time, the money, and the careers it claimed. Perhaps not for sky scientists, whose experiments were left out of all but the ill-fated Block I flights. Perhaps not, it seemed at the time, even for planetary scientists. The lunar photographs supplied no decisive evidence about the formation, structure, or strength of the lunar surface. "Rangerís pictures are like mirrors," the planetary scientist Thomas Gold mused after the flight of Ranger 9, "and everyone sees his own theories reflected in them." 38 So indecisive a scientific outcome had virtually been ensured by the redirection of Project Ranger to serve Apollo, the eventual elimination of all experiments save the television cameras and, with the cancellation of Ranger Block V, of any nonvisual experiments to probe the moon's surface composition and structure. 39

But, along with besting the Soviet Union in sending back to earth the first television pictures of the lunar surface, Ranger had eliminated any doubts about the adequacy of the design for the Apollo lander. It had also taught many space scientists that in space exploration, engineering would often have to come first. Homer Newell, Mr. Science at NASA, had learned that lesson and now patiently explained to scientists and Congressmen alike the knowledge to be won from the spectacular engineering task of Apollo. Who first stepped on the moon, he insisted, was not the issue; the individuals could stay but a short time. The scientific instruments they would use, those they would leave behind on the surface, and the soil samples they would retrieve would all yield rich scientific dividends. He was, as events were to prove, absolutely right.

No less important, the Ranger project itself had already quickened the pace of planetary science. It had helped the research preferences of planetary scientists assume a preeminent place in the councils of space science. It had made visual imaging a basic exploratory tool of planetary science, an accepted antecedent to the planning of further experiments. 40 Rangerís pictures themselves provided detailed lunar maps and the means to construct three-dimensional lunar surface models. Scientists observed for the first time craters from one meter to a few hundred meters in diameter, and, from the makeup of the moonscape, deduced evidence of vulcanism. The steady-state distribution of small craters was also discovered, and detailed evidence was first observed for the aging and evolution of individual craters and other surface features as a result of repetitive bombardment of the lunar surface by solid particles. 41 In all, the television pictures acquired by Rangers 7, 8, and 9 created the foundation of a provocative new discipline - the science of the lunar regolith - the study of the fragmented debris that makes up the moonís surface.

In Project Ranger, the Deep Space Network generated tracking data that improved knowledge of the mass of the moon by an order of magnitude. From these same data scientists found the radius of the moon to be 3 kilometers less than the previously accepted value, and they discovered an offset between the geometrical center of the moon and its center of mass - a discovery with profound implications for understanding the lunar interior. 42 Kuiper correctly remarked after the flight of Ranger 7 that lunar exploration had entered a new era; the project had transformed the centuries-old study of the moon from subtle conjecture to an experimental science.

Perhaps more than any other flight project, Ranger proved the technologies and the designs for the automatic machines NASA would use for deep space exploration: attitude stabilization on three axes, onboard computer and sequencer, directional scientific observations, midcourse trajectory and terminal maneuver capability, and steerable high-gain antenna. With Ranger, NASAís Deep Space Network perfected the two-way doppler tracking and communications system, including the means to measure the velocity between the spacecraft and tracking stations - the key to accurate trajectory computation. Television camera improvements, such as fast erasing and shuttering technology, became available to other projects. Ranger also broke new technical ground for NASA by using the Atlas-Agena B launch vehicle, by the parking orbit technique, and, less happily perhaps, by heat sterilizing spacecraft components. 43

In 1965 NASA officials also liked to claim that Ranger might possibly benefit the commercial and scientific market places. 44 Knowledge gained in building the impact-limiter capsule, they suggested, could be transferred and adapted to deliver sensitive instruments for earth exploration, airdrop supplies to disaster victims, and improve collision-proofing of vehicles and the packaging of parcels. By 1976, only one case of such uses was known - the modification of Rangerís single-axis seismometer and its capsule to function in earth gravity and at various pressures, which has served the University of Californiaís Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at La Jolla well for 13 years of seismological observations on the ocean bottom, in midwater, and on land. 45 But however strained NASAís suggestions of possible spinoffs, image enhancement through digital computer processing was a decidedly impressive gift from Ranger to commercial applications. This process removed spurious noise received with Rangerís picture signal and enhanced contrasts in the photographs of the lunar surface by shifting the mean intensity level and expanding it to cover the full range of the gray scale from black to white. 46 The technique profoundly affected diverse disciplines including astronomy, lunar cartography, medicine, commercial communications, and microspectroscopy. When applied to enhance X-ray photographs, it was selected by Industrial Research Incorporated as the single most important technical innovation of 1967 (Figure 104). 47


Fig. 104.(a) X-Ray of Human Skull


Fig. 104.(b) X-Ray of Human Skull X-Ray Enhanced by Computer Processing

And Ranger repaid more than pictures and hardware. It taught the chief participants, scientists and engineers alike, what demands could and could not be compromised among those of schedule, performance, and costs. It taught them the importance of hardware testing, and how to integrate scientific experiments into flight projects. The development of the spacecraft, communications network, and managerial techniques combined to make Ranger an essential prerequisite to the nationís future instrumented exploration of the deep reaches of outer space.

Chapter 18  link to the previous page        link to the next page  Sources

Chapter Nineteen - Notes

The hyphenated numbers in parentheses at the ends of individual citations are catalog numbers of documents on file in the history archives of the JPL library.

1. As reprinted in Robert C. Cowen, "Was Ranger Worth the Cost?-II," Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 1965, Editorial.

2. See "Hard Questions for Space Science" in Chapter Eighteen of this volume, and, for example, the letter from Harold Urey to Gerard Kuiper, January 6, 1965 (2-2018).

3. William Cunningham, NASA, OSSA Review, January 12, 1965 (2-1505); JPL Interoffice Memo from Harris Scharmeier to Executive Council, subject: "Ranger Status Report for January 4, 1965, No. 195, " January 7, 1965 (2- 1315).

4. NASA memorandum from William Cunningham to Edgar Cortright, subject: "Ranger 8 Prelaunch Status Review at ETR," February 9, 1965 (2- .1513).

5. Vrebalovich, who acted as official liaison between the experimenters and the project office, was most disappointed with the experimenters' decision in this instance. "I kept telling them-1ook, that's not your prerogative, your expertise is: Should I do a maneuver to enhance science? If the project engineers say no, that's one thing, but for you guys to say no for them, I don't think that's right'." Interview of Thomas Vrebalovich by Cargill Hall, June 11, 1974, p. 27 (2-2465). The experimenters, for their part, contended that any pictures were better than the chance of none at all.

6. For Ranger 8 flight events, see JPL Ranger C Status Bulletins Nos. 1 through 5, February 17 through 20, 1965 (2-1992); Ranger VII and IX: Part I. Mission Description and Performance (JPL TR 32-800. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, January 31, 1966); Space Programs Summary No. 37-34, Volume VI for the period May 1, 1965, to June 30, 1965 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, July 31, 1965), pp. 1-12; also Marvin Miles, "Probe Hits Moon: Ranger 8 Sends Back Photos," Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1965, Part 1, p.1.

7. Quoted in Dave Swaim, "Jet Lab Jubilant on Shot: Project Called Textbook Flight," Star News [Pasadena], February 20, 1965, p. 1.

8. Transcript of the Ranger VIII Post-Impact Press Conference, JPL Auditorium, February 20, 1965, prepared by the Office of Public Education and Information, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, p. 6 (2-904).

9. Ibid., p. 7.

10. Ibid., pp. 8-10.

11. Ibid., pp. 14-15; see also news accounts; for example, Marvin Miles, "Ranger Photos Likely to Stir Up Controversy," Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1965, Part 1, p. 1; and "Via Ranger, Rills, and Dimples: Ranger 8, " Newsweek; Vol. 65, March 1, 1965, pp. 64-65.

12. Fredric C. Appel, "Ranger 8 Hits Target On Moon and Radios Back 7000 Pictures to Aid Search for Landing Sites," The New York Times, February 21, 1965, p. 1.

13. "The Ranger Success," editorial in The New York Times, February 22, 1965, p. 20. The new photos, U.S. News and World Report added a few weeks later, had clearly "raised more questions than they answered, and started a major controversy ... over the safety of putting a man on the moon." "Still a Big Secret Is the Moon a Mantrap? " U.S. News and World Report, Vol. 58, March 8, 1965, p. 33.

14. Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, February 21, 1965; see also, Walter Sullivan, "Science: The Lunar Surface," The New York Times, February 28, 1965, p. 6 E.

15. "Remarks Following a Briefing at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, February 25, 1965," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 [81] (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1966), Book 1, pp. 214 and 2 16.

16. Harris M. Schurmeier, " Ranger D Target Selection, " report to Homer Newell, presented March 10, 1965, pp. 1, 2 (2-856).

17. Ibid., pp. 3-5.

18. Letter from Raymond Heacock to William Cunningham, March 9, 1965 (22031).

19. NASA memorandum from Oran Nicks to Homer Newell, subject: "Ranger D Site Selection," March 10, 1965 (2-1517); and NASA memorandum from Homer Newell to Robert Seamans, subject: "Ranger 9 Lunar Aim Point Priorities, "March 15, 1965 (2-1518).

20. JPL News Release No. 324, subject: "Ranger D Launch Scheduled March 21, 1965, " March 15, 1965 (2-2418); and " Ranger Gets Priority by Day Over Gemini," The Cocoa Tribune, March 16, 1965, p. 1.

21. Walter Sullivan, "The Week in Science: A Russian Steps Into Space, " The New York Times, March 21, 1965, p. E 3; also Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1965 (NASA SP-4006. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1966), pp. 131-132.

22. Letter from Harold Urey to Homer Newell, June 19, 1961 (2-2291).

23. JPL News Release No. 327, March 23, 1965 (2-912); NASA News Release No. 65-96, subject: "Ranger IX To Send World's First Live Moon Photos," March 23, 1965 (2-2435).

24. At that moment in Washington, Newell and Cortright were presenting the fiscal year 1965 NASA budget before Karth's Committee. "We had set up a TV, " Newell recollected, "and committee and witnesses paused to watch. It was a dramatic display to the committee of what JPL and NASA could do. Comments of Homer E. Newell written on draft manuscript of this volume, July 1, 1975.

25. For Mission details see Ranger VIII and IX.- Part I; Space Programs Summary No. 37-33, Volume I for the period March 1, 1965, to April 20, 1965 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, May 31, 1965), pp. 2ff; Nicholas A. Renzetti, Tracking and Data Acquisition for Ranger Missions 6-9 (JPL TM 33-275. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, September 15, 1966), p. 101; Space Programs Summary No. 37-33, Volume VI for the period March 1, 1965, to April 30, 1965 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, May 31, 1965), pp. 1-2.

26. Transcript of the Ranger 9 Press Conference held March 24, 1965, pp. 2-3 (2-2034a).

27. Telegram From Earl Hilburn to William Pickering, March 24, 1965 (2-2056).

28. Transcript of the Ranger 9 Post-Impact Press Conference held March 24, 1965, pp. 16-17 (2-2034b).

29. CE, for example, James P. Bennett, "It's Moon Bull's Eye: Millions Ride With Ranger Via TV," Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, March 24, 1965; and Gladwin Hill, "Ranger Hits Moon and Sends Photos Seen Live on TV, " The New York Times, March 25, 1965, p. 1.

30. "The Moon 'Live'," editorial in Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 1965; and "Eyes on the Moon," editorial in The New York Times, March 25, 1965,p. 36.

31. Cynthia Lowry, "Television Glamorized Moon Face," Independent [Pasadena], March 26, 1965, p. A7.

32. Text as reprinted in "President Cheers Ranger's Success, " The New York Times, March 25, 1965, p. 22.

33. Notes for James Webb's Cabinet Briefing on the Ranger Program (2-2436); and "Ranger Pinpointed Two Landing Areas on Moon," Los Angeles Times, March 26, 1965, Part 1, p. 1.

34. See Chapters Two and Twelve of this volume.

35. See recommendations in Final Report of the Ranger Board of Inquiry (Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, November 30, 1962) (2-2463); and NASA memorandum from Oran Nicks to Abe Silverstein, subject: "Analysis of JPL-Headquarters Relationships and Recommendations for Improvements, " October 6, 1961 (2-332b).

36. NASA memorandum from Homer Newell to Earl Hilburn, subject: "Studies Relating to Management Effectiveness in Scheduling and Cost Estimating NASA Projects," November 6, 1964, p. 5 (2-1754); see also Vernon Van Dyke, Pride and Power: The Rationale of the Space Program (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1964), p. 140.

37. See Appendix G of this volume.

38. Quoted in William S. Beller, "Lunar Surface Controversy Rekindled, Missiles and Rockets, Vol. 16, April 26, 1965, p. 16.

39. Most subsequent accounts overlook the original Ranger missions and relegate the entire project to a reconnaissance role supportive of Apollo. See, for example, Richard S. Lewis, The Voyages of Apollo: The Exploration of the Moon (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1975), pp. 46-48.

40. Cf., letter from Frederick Seitz to James Webb, October 30, 1964 (5-713a), and the attachment to this letter, "Statement of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences on National Goals in Space, 19711985," October 28, 1964 (5-713b); also, letter from James Webb to Lyndon Johnson, February 16, 1965, and "Summary Report Future Programs Task Group, January 1965," as reprinted in United States Congress, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1966, Hearings before the Committee, 88th Congress, 1st Session on S. 927, 1965, pp. 1027-1028, and pp. 1029-1035. See also, remarks of Amrom Katz in Armin J. Deutsch and Wolfgang B. Klemperer (eds.), Space Age Astronomy (an International Symposium sponsored by Douglas Aircraft Corporation, Inc., August 7-9, 1961, at the California Institute of Technology, in conjunction with the 11th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union. New York: Academic Press, 1963), p. 474; Homer Newell's remarks in United States Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Investigation of Project Ranger, Hearings before the Subcommittee on NASA Oversight, 88th Congress, 2nd Session, 1964, No. 3, p. 6; and Harold Urey, with a chemist's reservations, in United States Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1966 NASA Authorization, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, 89th Congress, 1st Session, on H.R. 3 730, 1965, No. 2, Part 3, p. 434; see also Albert R. Hibbs,. "The Surface of the Moon," Scientific American, Vol. 216, No. 3, March 1967, p. 61. As Thornton Page summed the spaceborne potential: "I like to think of myself as a 'big telescope man' - ground based of course - but I have to admit that getting outside the atmosphere for a better look ... beats anything that the Palomar telescope now can offer." Thornton Page, "A View from the Outside," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 25, No. 7, September 1969, p. 61.

41. See Ranger VII. Part II Experimenters' Analyses and Interpretations (JPL TR 32-700. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, February 10, 1965); and Ranger VIII and IX. - Part II. Experimenters' Analyses and Interpretations (JPL TR 32-800. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, March 15, 1966); also, Raymond L. Heacock, "Ranger: Its Mission and Its Results, " Space Log (TRW, Redondo Beach, California), Summer 1965, pp. 15-23 (2-121); letter from Gerard Kuiper to Cargill Hall, August 4, 1970 (2-2058); and letter from Eugene Shoemaker to Cargill Hall, July 22, 15 (2-2506); see Appendix A for the status of lunar theory before Ranger 7.

42. See William L. Sjogren, et al., Physical Constants as Determined from Radio Tracking of the Ranger Lunar Probes (JPL TR 32-1057. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, December 30, 1966).

43. Cf, Robert J. Parks, "Flight Projects," Space Research Activities of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (A summary of a presentation to members of the Subcommittee on Space Sciences and Applications of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, United States House of Representatives, at Pasadena, California, March 23, 24, 1967. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, 1967), p. 14 (211 ); Ranger TV Subsystem (Block III) Final RiTort (Astro-Electronics Division, Radio Corporation of America: Princeton, New Jersey, July 22, 1965), Volume 1: "Summary," p. 77 (2-960); William H. Pickering, "Ranger-On the Upward Trail," Astronautics and Aeronautics, Vol. 3, January 1965, p. 20; statement of Homer Newell in United States Congress, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1964, Hearings before the Committee, 88th Congress, 1st Session, on S. 1245, 1963, Part 1: "Scientific and Technical Programs, p. 261; U.S. Congress, 1966 NASA Authorization, p. 209; "Contributions of the Ranger Program," draft report from Horner Newell's files (2-2325); 9. Letter from Harris Schurmeier to William Cunningham, with attachment describing Ranger "uniqueness" and "state of the art improvements," October 5, 1964 (2-1882a&b); and William H. Pickering, "Systems Engineering at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," Caltech Lecture Series: Systems Concepts for the Private and Public Sectors, April 27, 1971 (3-468).

44. U.S. Congress, 1966 NASA Authorization, p. 470.

45. Letter from Hugh Bradner to Cargill Hall, September 17, 1975 (2-2507). For details, see Frank Lehner, "Brief Description of the Ranger Lunar Seismograph," Proceedings of the IRE, Vol. 50, 1962, p. 2297; Hugh Bradner, "Instrumenting the Sea Floor," IEEE Spectrunt November 1964, pp. 108-114; and Hugh Bradner, "Seismic Measurements on the Ocean Bottom: New Instruments are Used to Study Earth's Crustal Structure and Seismic Background," Science, Vol. 146, 1964, pp. 308-316; also Bradner, Dejerphanion, and Langlois, "Ocean Microseism Measurements with a Neutral Bouyancy Free-Floating Midwater Seismometer," Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Vol. 60, 1970, pp. 1139-1150.

46. Perfected by Robert Nathan, a JPL scientist with a PhD from Caltech in crystallography, it is first described in Space Program Summary No. 37-12, Volume I for the period September 1, 1961, to November 1, 1961 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, December 1, 1961), p. 3.

47. R. H. Selzer, Digital Computer Processing of X-Ray Photographs (JPL TR 32-1028. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, November 15, 1966). Technical details in Robert Nathan, Digital Video-Data Handling (JPL TR 32-877. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, January 5, 1966); Space Research Activities of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, p. 65 (2-11); Thomas C. Rindficisch, "Getting More Out of Ranger Pictures by Computer," Astronautics and Aeronautics, January 1969, p. 70; see also, Homer Newell's statement in United States Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1967 NASA Authorization, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Application, 89th Congress, 2nd Session, on H.R. 12718, 1966, No. 4, Part 3, pp. 828-833; W. J. Hardy, "Motion Picture Script for Analyses and Summary of the Ranger VII, VIII, and IX Television Pictures," June 21, 1967 (2-2371); background in Kimmis Hendrick, "Photo Technique: Moon 'Brighter'," Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 1965, p. 4; Azriel Rosenfeld, Picture Processing by Computer, (New York: Academic Press, 1969); and interview of Vrebalovich by Hall, June 11, 1974, pp. 16-24 (2-2465).

Ch 18 Notes  link to the previous page                                                      

Chapter 18  link to the previous page        link to the next page  Sources